(Open Thread) Noir Side Street — “Tension”

Incoming Day. Photo by Emanuele Toscano.

Today’s film is 1949’s “Tension” from MGM, starring Richard Basehart (Warren Quimby/Paul Sothern), Audrey Totter (Claire Quimby), Barry Sullivan (Police Lt. Collier Bonnabel), Cyd Charisse (Mary Chanler), Lloyd Gough (Barney Deager), William Conrad (Police Lt. Edward “Blackie” Gonsales), and Tom D’Andrea (Freddie the counter guy at Coast to Coast Drugstore). Directed by John Berry; cinematography by Harry Stradling. Produced by Robert Sisk for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Music by André Previn. Screenplay by Allen Rivkin; story by John D. Klorer.

“Tension” is a psychological thriller pretending to be a crime drama. I put it that way because no motive for the murder nor explanation of how the crime was committed is ever given. (And when you start thinking about the how and why, as well as the witness statements, the solution doesn’t even really make much sense, as far as opportunity goes.) The murder is basically a macguffin–defined by Merriam Webster as “an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.” In this case, the murder is simply a plot device to put characters into a situation and see how it plays out.

Of course, this only becomes apparent after you’ve watched the film and start thinking about it and the other silly contrivances and plot holes that exist elsewhere in the story. The most obvious offender is that Warren Quimby, mild-mannered druggist and night manager of the 24-hour Coast to Coast drugstore, decides he needs to create a new persona for himself so he can commit a murder as this persona and then vanish into thin air as he returns to his normal life. He accomplishes this change of identity chiefly by ditching his nerd glasses for contacts. Yes, it’s the old Superman ruse, only in reverse! Brilliant! No one will ever suspect!

Now, I shouldn’t be so hard on the film; it’s actually an enjoyable bit of entertainment as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Noir isn’t always so much about good storytelling as it is about setting a mood, putting a central character into a difficult situation, and seeing how he (or she) can handle the pressure. Usually badly, because they often end up making bad choice after bad choice.

In Warren’s case, we establish very quickly that he’s an industrious guy who works the night shift to make extra money, which he saves up so that he can provide a nice life for his wife. Claire Quimby, on the other hand, is not at all grateful for what he’s doing for them, has expensive tastes, is a huge flirt, and well… seems like she might be kind of easy with her affections. This is a situation which is going to blow up in poor Warren’s face, driving him to take dire action to set his life right again.

Warren is constantly wondering when he returns to their apartment over the drugstore if she’s going to be there when he gets home. And one morning, she isn’t.

Oh, he knows what’s happened and who she’s gone off with. (One of her many sins is playing up to men pretty much right under her husband’s nose. It’d be hard for him NOT to notice.) So he goes off to confront the pair, only to be beaten up by his wife’s lover, Barney Deager.

This is the point where Warren begins hatching his brilliant plan to create a new persona who will exact his revenge and kill Deager. But in the moment of truth, Warren just can’t bring himself to deliver the fatal blow and lets Deager off, because Warren’s realized his wife isn’t worth going to the gas chamber for. Let Deager have her.

Complicating matters further, as Paul Sothern, Warren has met very attractive Mary Chanler, a neighbor at his alter-ego’s apartment, and over time realizes he’s in love with her.

Which woman will he choose, the femme fatale he’s married to or the lovely girl who’s literally next door?

Overall, I’d give this film 3 unfiltered cigarette puffs out of 5. Yes, the plot’s full of holes, but it’s still fun to watch, just to see what Warren will do. The story’s well-acted and the crew behind the camera are equally adept in their efforts. And seeing Cyd Charisse in a straight dramatic role (no dancing!) makes you wonder why she wasn’t given more opportunity to simply act.

Next week’s film is “The Unfaithful.”

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